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Archive for June 4th, 2017

“The Evolution of Culture,” from Matt Ridley’s The Evolution of Everything

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Here are a few pages from the beginning of Chapter 5 of The Evolution of Everything, by Matt Ridley:

Chapter 5: The Evolution of Culture

And therefore to assume there was one person gave a name
To everything, and that all learned their first words from the same,
Is stuff and nonsense. Why should one human being from among
The rest be able to designate and name things with his tongue
And others not possess the power to do likewise? . . .

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, Book 5, lines 1041–5

The development of an embryo into a body is perhaps the most beautiful of all demonstrations of spontaneous order. Our understanding of how it happens grows ever less instructional. As Richard Dawkins writes in his book The Greatest Show on Earth, ‘The key point is that there is no choreographer and no leader. Order, organisation, structure – these all emerge as by-products of rules which are obeyed locally and many times over.’ There is no overall plan, just cells reacting to local effects. It is as if an entire city emerged from chaos just because people responded to local incentives in the way they set up their homes and businesses. (Oh, hang on – that is how cities emerged too.)

Look at a bird’s nest: beautifully engineered to provide protection and camouflage to a family of chicks, made to a consistent (but unique) design for each species, yet constructed by the simplest of instincts with no overall plan in mind, just a string of innate urges. I had a fine demonstration of this one year when a mistle thrush tried to build a nest on the metal fire escape outside my office. The result was a disaster, because each step of the fire escape looked identical, so the poor bird kept getting confused about which step it was building its nest on. Five different steps had partly built nests on them, the middle two being closest to completion, but neither fully built. The bird then laid two eggs in one half-nest and one in another. Clearly it was confused by the local cues provided by the fire-escape steps. Its nest-building program depended on simple rules, like ‘Put more material in corner of metal step.’ The tidy nest of a thrush emerges from the most basic of instincts.

Or look at a tree. Its trunk manages to grow in width and strength just as fast as is necessary to bear the weight of its branches, which are themselves a brilliant compromise between strength and flexibility; its leaves are a magnificent solution to the problem of capturing sunlight while absorbing carbon dioxide and losing as little water as possible: they are wafer-thin, feather-light, shaped for maximum exposure to the light, with their pores on the shady underside. The whole structure can stand for hundreds or even thousands of years without collapsing, yet can also grow continuously throughout that time – a dream that lies far beyond the capabilities of human engineers. All this is achieved without a plan, let alone a planner. The tree does not even have a brain. Its design and implementation emerge from the decisions of its trillions of single cells. Compared with animals, plants dare not rely on brain-directed behaviour, because they cannot run away from grazers, and if a grazer ate the brain, it would mean death. So plants can withstand almost any loss, and regenerate easily. They are utterly decentralised. It is as if an entire country’s economy emerged from just the local incentives and responses of its people. (Oh, hang on . . .)

Or take a termite mound in the Australian outback. Tall, buttressed, ventilated and oriented with respect to the sun, it is a perfect system for housing a colony of tiny insects in comfort and gentle warmth – as carefully engineered as any cathedral. Yet there is no engineer. The units in this case are whole termites, rather than cells, but the system is no more centralised than in a tree or an embryo. Each grain of sand or mud that is used to construct the mound is carried to its place by a termite acting under no instruction, and with no plan in (no) mind. The insect is reacting to local signals. It is as if a human language, with all its syntax and grammar, were to emerge spontaneously from the actions of its individual speakers, with nobody laying down the rules. (Oh, hang on . . .)

That is indeed exactly how languages emerged, in just the same fashion that the language of DNA developed – by evolution. Evolution is not confined to systems that run on DNA. One of the great intellectual breakthroughs of recent decades, led by two evolutionary theorists named Rob Boyd and Pete Richerson, is the realisation that Darwin’s mechanism of selective survival resulting in cumulative complexity applies to human culture in all its aspects too. Our habits and our institutions, from language to cities, are constantly changing, and the mechanism of change turns out to be surprisingly Darwinian: it is gradual, undirected, mutational, inexorable, combinatorial, selective and in some vague sense progressive.

Scientists used to object that evolution could not occur in culture because culture did not come in discrete particles, nor did it replicate faithfully or mutate randomly, like DNA. This turns out not to be true. Darwinian change is inevitable in any system of information transmission so long as there is some lumpiness in the things transmitted, some fidelity of transmission and a degree of randomness, or trial and error, in innovation. To say that culture ‘evolves’ is not metaphorical.

The evolution of language

There is an almost perfect parallel between the evolution of DNA sequences and the evolution of written and spoken language. Both consist of linear digital codes. Both evolve by selective survival of sequences generated by at least partly random variation. Both are combinatorial systems capable of generating effectively infinite diversity from a small number of discrete elements. Languages mutate, diversify, evolve by descent with modification and merge in a ballet of unplanned beauty. Yet the end result is structure, and rules of grammar and syntax as rigid and formal as you could want. ‘The formation of different languages, and of distinct species, and the proofs that both have been developed through a gradual process, are curiously parallel,’ wrote Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man.

This makes it possible to think of language as a designed and rule-based thing. And for generations, this was the way foreign languages were taught. At school I learned Latin and Greek as if they were cricket or chess: you can do this, but not that, to verbs, nouns and plurals. A bishop can move diagonally, a batsman can run a leg bye, and a verb can take the accusative. Eight years of this rule-based stuff, taught by some of the finest teachers in the land for longer hours each week than any other topic, and I was far from fluent – indeed, I quickly forgot what little I had learned once I was allowed to abandon Latin and Greek. Top–down language teaching just does not work well – it’s like learning to ride a bicycle in theory, without ever getting on one. Yet a child of two learns English, which has just as many rules and regulations as Latin, indeed rather more, without ever being taught. An adolescent picks up a foreign language, conventions and all, by immersion. Having a training in grammar does not (I reckon) help prepare you for learning a new language much, if at all. It’s been staring us in the face for years: the only way to learn a language is bottom–up.

Language stands as the ultimate example of a spontaneously organised phenomenon. Not only does it evolve by itself, words changing their meaning even as we watch, despite the railings of the mavens, but it is learned, not taught. The prescriptive habit has us all tut-tutting at the decline of language standards, the loss of punctuation and the debasement of vocabulary, but it’s all nonsense. Language is just as rule-based in its newest slang forms, and just as sophisticated as it ever was in ancient Rome. But the rules, now as then, are written from below, not from above.

There are regularities about language evolution that make perfect sense but have never been agreed by committees or recommended by experts. For instance, frequently used words tend to be short, and words get shorter if they are more frequently used: we abbreviate terms if we have to speak them often. This is good – it means less waste of breath, time and paper. And it is an entirely natural, spontaneous phenomenon that we remain largely unaware of. Similarly, common words change only very slowly, whereas rare words can change their meaning and their spelling quite fast. Again, this makes sense – re-engineering the word ‘the’ so it means something different would be a terrific problem for the world’s English-speakers, whereas changing the word ‘prevaricate’ (it used to mean ‘lie’, it now seems mostly to mean ‘procrastinate’) is no big deal, and has happened quite quickly. Nobody thought up this rule; it is the product of evolution.

Languages show other features of evolutionary systems. For instance, as Mark Pagel has pointed out, biological species of animals and plants are more diverse in the tropics, less so near the poles. Indeed, many circumpolar species tend to have huge ranges, covering the whole of an ecosystem in the Arctic or Antarctic, whereas tropical rainforest species might be found in just one small area – a valley or a mountain range or on an island. The rainforest of New Guinea is a menagerie of millions of different species with small ranges, while the tundra of Alaska is home to a handful of species with vast ranges. This is true of plants, insects, birds, mammals, fungi. It’s a sort of iron rule of ecology: that there will be more species, but with smaller ranges, near the equator, and fewer species, but with larger ranges, near the poles.

And here is the fascinating parallel. It is also true of languages. The native tongues spoken in Alaska can be counted on one hand. In New Guinea there are literally thousands of languages, some of which are spoken in just a few valleys and are as different from the languages of the next valley as English is from French. Even this language density is exceeded on the volcanic island of Gaua, part of Vanuatu, which has five different native languages in a population of just over 2,000, despite being a mere thirteen miles in diameter. In forested, mountainous tropical regions, human language diversity is extreme.

One of Pagel’s graphs shows that the decreasing diversity of languages with latitude is almost identical to the decreasing diversity of species with latitude. At present neither trend is easily explained. The great diversity of species in tropical forests has something to do with the greater energy flowing through a tropical ecosystem with plenty of warmth and light and water. It may also have something to do with the abundance of parasites. Tropical creatures are subjected to a constant barrage of parasitic invasions, and being an abundant creature makes you more of a target, so there is an advantage to rarity. And it may reflect a lower extinction rate in a more climatically equable zone. As for languages, the need to migrate with the seasons must homogenise the linguistic diversity of extremely seasonal landscapes, in contrast to tropical ones, where populations can fragment into smaller groups and each can survive without moving. But whatever the explanation, the phenomenon illustrates the way human languages evolve automatically. They are clearly human products, but they are not consciously designed.

Moreover, by studying the history of languages, Pagel finds that when a new language diverges from an ancestral language, it appears to change very rapidly at first. The same seems to be true of species. When a geographical subset of a species becomes isolated it evolves very rapidly at first, so that evolution by natural selection seems to happen in bursts, a phenomenon known as punctuated equilibrium. There are intensely close parallels between the evolution of languages and of species.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 June 2017 at 10:24 pm

Posted in Books, Evolution, Memes, Science

Did defense secretary nominee James Mattis commit war crimes in Iraq?

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Apparently so. Aaron Glantz writes in Reveal News:

Retired Gen. James Mattis earned the nickname “Mad Dog” for leading U.S. Marines into battle in Fallujah, Iraq, in April 2004. In that assault, members of the Marine Corps, under Mattis’ command, shot at ambulances and aid workers. They cordoned off the city, preventing civilians from escaping. They posed for trophy photos with the people they killed.

Each of these offenses has put other military commanders and members of the rank and file in front of international war crimes tribunals. The doctrine that landed them there dates back to World War II, when an American military tribunal held Japanese Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita accountable for war crimes in the Philippines. His execution later was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

During the siege of Fallujah, which I covered as an unembedded journalist, Marines killed so many civilians that the municipal soccer stadium had to be turned into a graveyard.

In the years since, Mattis – called a “warrior monk” by his supporters – repeatedly has protected American service members who killed civilians, using his status as a division commander to wipe away criminal charges against Marines accused of massacring 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005 and granting clemency to some of those convicted in connection with the 2006 murder of a 52-year-old disabled Iraqi, who was taken outside his home and shot in the face four times.

These actions show a different side of Mattis, now 66, than has been featured in most profiles published since his nomination as President-elect Donald Trump’s defense secretary, which have portrayed him as a strong proponent of the Geneva Conventions and an anti-torture advocate.

Although Mattis argued against the siege of Fallujah beforehand, both international and U.S. law are clear: As the commanding general, he should be held accountable for atrocities committed by Marines under his command. Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting received no reply to messages sent to Mattis’ personal, business and military email addresses. Trump’s transition team likewise did not respond to inquiries. Mattis’ biography on the transition team’s website does not mention the battle.

There have been credible reports that U.S. troops under the command of Gen. Mattis did target civilians, conducted indiscriminate attacks and also conducted attacks against military objectives that caused disproportionate casualties to civilians during military operations in Fallujah,” said Gabor Rona, who teaches international law at Columbia University and worked as a legal adviser at the Geneva headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross at the time of the siege.

“All of these are war crimes,” Rona said. “Applying the doctrine of command responsibility, Gen. Mattis would be responsible for these misdeeds, these war crimes of troops under his command if he … either knew, should’ve known or did nothing to prevent or punish this behavior.”

Nearly 13 years later, the siege of Fallujah has receded from the headlines. But for those of us who experienced the events firsthand, the death and destruction are seared into our memories. The lack of accountability for the killing of so many civilians grates like nails on chalkboard.

Given his command responsibility, Mattis’ confirmation hearing for defense secretary, which starts Thursday, provides an opportunity to probe his role in the killings, including asking whether he committed war crimes.


I spent parts of three years in Iraq, covering the war as an independent, unembedded journalist, including work in and around Fallujah at the time of the April 2004 siege. The year before, in May 2003, I had spent $10 to take a taxi from Baghdad to Fallujah and – as an American journalist armed only with a microphone – walked freely among the fruit and vegetable sellers, buying a Seiko watch with a fake leather band and sitting in on a Friday prayer to hear from Jamal Shakur, the city’s most strident and powerful imam.

Although AK-47s were being sold openly on the street and there already had been clashes with American troops, the imam urged nonviolence.

“Islam is a religion of peace,” he preached. Do not confront the Americans, he said. Do not turn out to protest.

But as the U.S. government bungled the occupation, anti-American sentiment grew. Basic services such as electricity, knocked out during the initial invasion in March 2003, were not restored. Insurgent attacks increased, and along with them the number of civilians killed in American counterattacks. Thousands of Iraqis disappeared into Abu Ghraib prison, Saddam Hussein’s old lockup outside Baghdad, by then operated by the U.S. military.

A year later, Fallujah was destroyed by the Marines under Mattis’ command. . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more.

I find it a very bad sign that war crimes now are okay for the US to do (e.g., torturing prisoners, sometimes to death). No accountability tends to make things get worse.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 June 2017 at 6:14 pm

What Would War Mean in Korea?

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Here’s a reasonable question to ask in our unreasonable world: Does Donald Trump even know where North Korea is? The answer matters and if you wonder why I ask, just remember his comment upon landing in Israel after his visit to Saudi Arabia. “We just got back from the Middle East,” he said.  In response, reported the Washington Post, “the Israeli ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, put his forehead in his palm.” Which brings us back to North Korea. As pollsters working for the New York Times recently discovered, were President Trump to have only the foggiest idea of that country’s location, he would be in remarkably good company. Of the 1,746 American adults the polling group Morning Consult queried, only 36% could accurately point to North Korea on a map of Asia. Other typical answers: Thailand, Nepal, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia.

And here’s why this question matters: those Americans who located North Korea correctly on a map — that is, those who had an accurate sense of where the ongoing crisis over the regime of Kim Jong-un was taking place — were significantly more likely to favor “diplomatic and nonmilitary strategies” to deal with it.  In the same spirit, they were less likely to favor “direct military engagement — in particular, sending [in] ground troops.”  Of course, the U.S. already has plenty of ground troops on the Korean peninsula.  Twenty-eight thousand five hundred of them and at least 200,000 American civilians are in South Korea today and would quickly be swept up in any war there.  If that conflict were to turn nuclear and the Demilitarized Zone between the two countries became “ground zero for the end of the world,” they would potentially be incinerated.  How eerily strange, then, that what Jonathan Schell once called “the fate of the Earth” now rests in the hands of two unnervingly narcissistic men: President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

With that in mind, you would think that Washington would be pushing hard to get us to a negotiating table rather than continuing to rattle the nuclear sabers and imagine militarized solutions to the ongoing crisis on the Korean peninsula.  Instead, in recent weeks diplomacy has repeatedly been declared a failure and other “options” on that “table” in Washington where such options are always regularly said to be kept have been highlighted.  Under the circumstances, could there be anything more important than not ruling out diplomacy and negotiations over the roiling Korean crisis and so leaving the full responsibility for what happens in the hands of those two narcissists and their generals?  On this subject, consider what Tom Dispatch regular Rajan Menon, author of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, has to say about why diplomacy and actual negotiations hold out a kind of hope that few have cared, or dared, to acknowledge in the present crisis. Tom

Avoiding Apocalypse on the Korean Peninsula
Why Diplomacy Is Not Naïve Appeasement in the Korean Crisis
By Rajan Menon

Defense Secretary James Mattis remarked recently that a war with North Korea would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.” No kidding. “Tragic” doesn’t even begin to describe the horrors that would flow from such a conflict.

The Korean peninsula, all 85,270 square miles of it, is about the size of Idaho. It contains more soldiers (2.8 million, not counting reserves) and armaments (nearly 6,000 tanks, 31,000 artillery pieces, and 1,134 combat aircraft) than any other place on the planet. The armies of North and South Korea face each other across the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, and Seoul, South Korea’s capital, is a mere 35 miles away as the artillery shell flies. More than 25 million people inhabit that city’s greater metropolitan area, home to about half of South Korea’s population. Unsurprisingly, untold numbers of North Korean missiles and artillery pieces are trained on that city. Once the guns started firing, thousands of its denizens would undoubtedly die within hours. Of course, North Koreans, too, would be caught in an almost instant maelstrom of death.

And the war wouldn’t be a bilateral affair.  South Korea hosts 28,500 American troops. In addition, there are some 200,000 American civilians in the country, most of them in Seoul.  Many in both categories could be killed by North Korean attacks and the United States would, in turn, hit multiple targets in that country.  Pyongyang might retaliate by firing missiles at Japan, where 39,000 American troops are stationed, concentrating on the network of American bases and command centers there, especially the U.S. Services Headquarters at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo.

And that’s without even considering the possible use of nuclear weapons.  If anything, Mattis’s description is an understatement.  And don’t assume that the danger of a Korean conflagration has passed now that President Trump has become trapped in the latest set of political scandals to plague his administration.  Quite the opposite: a clash between North Korea and the United States might have become more probable precisely because the president is politically besieged.

Trump wouldn’t be the first leader, confronted with trouble at home, to trigger a crisis abroad and then appeal for unity and paint critics as unpatriotic.  Keep in mind, after all, that this is the man who has already warned of “a major, major war” with North Korea.

Trump vs. Kim

So far the coercive tactics Trump has used to compel North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and cease testing ballistic missiles have included sanctions and asset freezes, military threats, and shows of force — both serious, as in the recent Key Resolve and Operation Max Thunder joint military exercises with South Korea, and farcical, as with a supposedly northward-bound naval “armada” that actually sailed in the opposite direction.

Such moves all involve the same presidential bet: that economic and military pressure can bend Pyongyang to his will.  Other American presidents have, of course, taken the same approach and failed for decades now, which seems to matter little to Trump, even though he presents himself as a break-the-mold maverick ready to negotiate unprecedented deals with foreign leaders.

By now, this much ought to be clear, even to Trump: North Korea hasn’t been cowed into compliance by Washington’s warnings and military muscle flexing.  In 2003, after multilateral diplomatic efforts to denuclearize North Korea ran aground, Pyongyang ditched the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and two years later declared that it possessed nuclear weapons.  In October 2006, it detonated its first nuclear device, a one-kiloton bomb.  Four other tests in May 2009, February 2013, January 2016, and September 2016, ranging in explosive yield from four to 10 kilotons, followed.  Three of them occurred after the current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, came to power in April 2012.

A similar pattern holds for ballistic missiles, which North Korea has been testing since 1993.  The numbers have risen steadily under Kim Jong-un, from four tests in 2012 to 25 in 2016.

Clearly, the North’s leaders reject the proposition that American approval is required for them to build nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles.  Like his father, Kim Jong-il, and his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (or DPRK, North Korea’s official name), Kim Jong-un is an ardent nationalist who regularly responds to threats by upping the ante.  Trump’s national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster, characterized Kim as “unpredictable.”  In reality, the Korean leader, like his father and grandfather before him, has been remarkably consistent: he has steadfastly refused to stop testing either nuclear weapons or their possible delivery systems, let alone “denuclearize” the Korean peninsula, as McMaster demanded.

Indeed, from Pyongyang’s perspective Trump may be the unpredictable one.  On one day, amid press reports that the Pentagon was considering a preventive strike using means ranging from Tomahawk cruise missiles to cyber attacks, the president declared ominously that North Korea “is a problem, a problem that will be taken care of.”  He followed up by warning Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he was then hosting at his Mar-a-Lago estate, that if China wouldn’t rein in Kim, the United States would act alone.  Not so long after, Trump suddenly praised Kim, calling him a “pretty smart cookie,” presumably impressed that the North Korean leader wasn’t even 30 years old when he succeeded his father.  On yet another day, the president announced that he would be “honored” to meet Kim under the right circumstances and would do so “absolutely.”

The roller-coaster ride otherwise known as the presidency of Donald Trump has many people perplexed. Trump’s boosters believe that the president’s unpredictability gives him leverage against adversaries.  But in the event of a military crisis on the Korean peninsula, Trump’s pendulum-like behavior could lead North Korea’s leaders to conclude that they had best prepare for the worst — and so strike first.  That prospect makes the Kim-Trump combination not just dangerous but quite possibly deadly.

Old Claims, New Possibilities

Standing in the way of a fresh policy toward North Korea are a set of assumptions beloved within the Washington Beltway and by the foreign policy establishment beyond it — and rarely challenged in the mainstream media.

Perhaps the most common of them is that diplomacy and conciliation toward North Korea won’t work because its leaders only respond to pressure.  So pervasive and deeply rooted is this view that it makes fresh thinking about Pyongyang next to impossible.

Given the failure of both sanctions and saber rattling, however, a new approach would have to involve diplomacy (in case you’ve forgotten that word) and serious negotiations with the North. Here’s one possible way to go that might, in fact, make a difference.

North Korea would agree, in principle, to dismantle its nuclear weapons installations, rejoin the NPT, and allow comprehensive inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to verify its compliance.  Concurrently, the United States would pledge not to attack North Korea or topple its regime and to move toward normalization of political relations. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 June 2017 at 4:02 pm

The Male Impersonator: Ernest Hemingway

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Very interesting review by Fintan O’Toole in the NY Review of Books:

Ernest Hemingway: A Biography
by Mary V. Dearborn
Knopf, 738 pp., $35.00Ernest Hemingway: A New Life<
by James M. Hutchisson
Pennsylvania State University Press, 292 pp., $37.95Writer, Sailor, Soldier, Spy: Ernest Hemingway’s Secret Adventures, 1935–1961
by Nicholas Reynolds
William Morrow, 357 pp., $27.99

The Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Hemingway Library Edition
edited and with an introduction by Seán Hemingway, and a foreword by Patrick Hemingway
Scribner, 576 pp., $32.00 (to be published in July)

I am not sure whether the National Rifle Association has ever thought of having an official Nobel literary laureate. But if it did there is no doubt that it would choose Ernest Hemingway. There is a coffee table book, published by Shooting Sportsman in 2010, called Hemingway’s Guns. It is a lovingly detailed, lavishly illustrated, and creepily fetishistic catalog of the great writer’s firearms: the Browning automatic 5s, the Colt Woodman pistols, the Winchester 21 shotguns, the Merkel over/unders, the Beretta S3, the Mannlicher- Schoenauer rifles, the .577 Nitro Express with which he fantasized about shooting Senator Joe McCarthy, the big-bore Mauser, the Thomson sub-machine gun with which, he claimed, he shot sharks.

Here he is brandishing his Browning Superposed with Gary Cooper, or showing his Model 12 pumpgun to an admiring Hollywood beauty: “Hemingway enjoyed teaching women to shoot—and what man wouldn’t like to coach Jane Russell?” Here is the Griffin and Howe .30-06 Springfield—“already bloodied on elk, deer and bear”—leaning against a dead rhino. The one gun whose identity the authors seem unsure of is the one with which he took his own life in 1961.

Hemingway’s peculiar variation on American romanticism was a profound connection to the natural world expressed through violent assaults on it. In one of his still-radiant stories, “Fathers and Sons,” we find his alter ego Nick Adams driving through the landscape and “hunting the country in his mind as he went by.” This rapaciousness was what made Hemingway so famous in his own time as the gold standard of American masculinity. As David Earle has shown in All Man!, men’s magazines in the 1950s carried headlines like “Hemingway: America’s No.1 He-Man” and “The Hairy Chest of Hemingway.”*

Yet it is this same alpha-male persona and its relentless desire to possess women and defeat nature that now make Hemingway such a rebarbative figure. It is hard to sympathize with the Hemingway who cabled his third wife, the brilliant journalist Martha Gellhorn, while she was away covering World War II: “ARE YOU A WAR CORRESPONDENT OR WIFE IN MY BED?” Harder still not to recoil from accounts of Hemingway’s slaughtering of lions, leopards, cheetahs, and rhinoceros in Africa or from Mary Dearborn’s deadpan revelation of the fate of eighteen mahi-mahi caught by Hemingway and his cronies off Key West: “They would be used as fertilizer for [his second wife] Pauline’s flowerbeds.”

Add in the overwhelming evidence that Hemingway in his later decades was, in the words of his fourth wife Mary, “truculent, brutal, abusive and extremely childish” and his life story becomes ever more repellent. Yet the appetite for Hemingway biographies appears limitless. Michael Reynolds seemed to say everything worth saying in his five-volume life, published between 1986 and 1999, but the books keep coming. They raise the issue that Gellhorn stated in a letter to her mother when she was about to divorce Hemingway: “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.”

The constant excavation of Hemingway’s life creates the danger of pollution: the loathsome sludge of the personality might seep into the genius of The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, and a score of magnificent short stories. Unless, that is, we can see through the phoniness of America’s number-one he-man to the genuine tragedy of masculinity that is played out in Hemingway’s life and in his best work.

Early in his brisk new biography, James Hutchisson has an anecdote that smells as fishy as the dead marlin in The Old Man and the Sea. It sets up a physical and psychological contrast between the super-manly Hemingway and the weakling James Joyce in Paris in the mid-1920s:

Although Hemingway often made fun of the Irishman’s frail physique, this afforded opportunities for fun and games when they went out drinking together, as they did frequently. When Joyce got drunk and challenged some stranger in a café to settle things manfully, he would simply defer to his companion, saying, “Deal with him, Hemingway! Deal with him!”

Did Joyce really go around picking physical fights in bars? If so, his biographers have missed it. Michael Reynolds, in his authoritative Hemingway: The Paris Years, makes no mention of this delicious anecdote. The origin of the story, so far as I can tell, is Hemingway’s boasting thirty years later. He tells it an interview with Time when he won his Nobel Prize in 1954. And the context makes it obviously bogus. The tale of the frail Irishman hiding behind the manful American is part of a longer quotation in which Joyce allegedly tells Hemingway that “he was afraid his [own] writing was too suburban and that maybe he should get around a bit and see the world.” Nora, Joyce’s future wife, is listening in and adds her approval: “His wife was there and she said, yes, his work was too suburban—‘Jim could do with a spot of that lion hunting.’”

What makes the whole story so clearly specious is that Hemingway’s earliest lion-hunting exploits date from 1933, around a decade after this supposed conversation. Essentially, the Joyces are supposed to be admitting in the mid-1920s that Joyce would be a much better writer if only he were more like the Hemingway of later decades, the world-traveling he-man and hunter, and less like the weedy fellow who needed his bigger companion to “settle things manfully” on his behalf.

In one sense, this episode tells us nothing more than that Hemingway was a compulsive liar and that Hutchisson is foolish to fall for his bragging. The idea of Joyce on safari suggests the possibility of a parlor game: Proust in space, Kafka at the disco. But behind it there is an immense sadness. For this woeful fabrication substitutes for something that might have been real: Hemingway did have a deep connection to Joyce. His two earliest—and best—novels, The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms, pick up on what Joyce had done in Ulysses. As Hemingway admitted to George Plimpton in a celebrated Paris Review interview in 1958, “the influence of [Joyce’s] work was what changed everything, and made it possible for us to break away from the restrictions.”

These restrictions were partly questions of frankness about sex and the body and partly questions of style. Hemingway made wonderful use of the freedom that Joyce had created. The tone of his masterly Nick Adams stories comes from Dubliners: it is impossible to imagine his first fully achieved piece, “Indian Camp,” for example, without “Araby,” and we can see in Seán Hemingway’s introduction to the new edition of the short stories precisely how his grandfather ruthlessly cut eight pages from the beginning of that story to plunge the reader, as Joyce does, straight into the stream of the action. The long interior monologue of Harry Morgan’s wife, Marie, that ends To Have and Have Not may not be a worthy successor to Molly Bloom’s in Ulysses, but at least Joyce gave Hemingway permission to try.

However, even these influences may be less important than something else that Joyce gave Hemingway: a specific idea of maleness. That idea is the opposite of the persona Hemingway would later forge—the hero who “settles things manfully.” Joyce gave us, in Leopold Bloom, the hero who settles nothing and is not at all manful, the pacifistic little man who just lives with Molly’s cheating on him with Blazes Boylan. Hemingway’s great tragedy is that he delved deeper into this unmanliness but then turned himself into a parody of the very masculinity he had subverted. For all his talk of courage, his is perhaps the greatest loss of nerve in twentieth-century literature.

Hemingway had imaginative access to two things he hid behind his outlandish public image—a complex sexuality and a deep trauma. Since the publication in 1986 of the unfinished novel The Garden of Eden, which he had worked on fitfully from 1945 until 1961, it has been obvious that he was drawn to the excitement of crossing sexual boundaries. The he-man was at least in part imaginatively a she-man. It was already clear that Hemingway was drawn to the erotic potential of androgyny. In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic and Catherine discuss growing their hair to the same length so that they can be “the same one.” In the story “The Last Good Country,” Nick Adams’s sister cuts her hair off so she can be like him—“I’m a boy, too”—and Nick says, “I like it very much.” But The Garden of Eden took all of this much further. Catherine cuts her hair to match that of her husband David but she then becomes a boy, Peter, and David becomes a girl, also called Catherine. David/Catherine is penetrated by his wife/husband:

He lay there and felt something and then her hand holding him and searching lower and he helped with his hands and then lay back in the dark and did not think at all and only felt the weight and strangeness inside and she said, “Now you can’t tell who is who can you?”

Zelda Fitzgerald’s mockery of Hemingway as “a pansy with hair on his chest” was crude and inaccurate but no more so than Hemingway’s own self-caricature as the straightest hombre on the planet.

Mary Dearborn’s well-balanced and deeply researched new biography convincingly traces some of this interest back to Hemingway’s childhood and the way his formidable mother Grace insisted on treating Ernest and his older sister Marcelline as if they were twins, giving them the same haircuts and insisting that they be in the same classes at school. The strong antipathy that Ernest developed for Marcelline may be the first expression of his tendency to react to complicated desires by swinging to the opposite extremes.

But Hemingway’s sexual complexity may also be connected to his experience in World War I. . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

4 June 2017 at 3:19 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

A conservative comment on Trump’s tweets

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Jennifer Rubin, conservative Republican, comments in the Washington Post:

The stoic determination and decency of the British people and their leaders were on full display in the hours after the latest horrific terrorist rampage. The Brits fought back, launching drinking glasses and chairs at the savages who attacked them. The police acted with lightning-fast precision, killing the three assailants within eight minutes of the emergency call. And, God Bless him, a man returned to the bar where he experienced Saturday’s horror — to pay his bill and tip. Civilization is not going to be driven out of Britain by three or three hundred killers.

Meanwhile — and it pains me to write this — our president acted like a clod, a heartless and dull-witted thug in sending out a series of tweets. He — commander in chief and leader of the Free World — first retweeted an unverified, unofficial Drudge headline about the unfolding terrorist attack. Then he aimed to bolster his Muslim travel ban (which is not supposed to be a Muslim travel ban). “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough,” he tweeted. “We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” (Aside from the inappropriateness of President Trump’s tweet, he fails to grasp that the courts in these cases are reaffirming our rights against an overreaching, discriminatory edict.)

After receiving blowback for that obnoxious missive, he tweeted out, “Whatever the United States can do to help out in London and the U. K., we will be there – WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!” But then he decided to slam the mayor of the city attacked, who had calmly warned his fellow Londoners: “Londoners will see an increased police presence today and over the course of the next few days. There’s no reason to be alarmed.” Trump took the second part out of context and responded viciously, “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’” (The mayor, of course, was telling them not to be alarmed by the heightened police presence.) Trump was not done, however, inanely tweeting, “Do you notice we are not having a gun debate right now? That’s because they used knives and a truck!”

One is prompted to ask if he is off his rocker. But this is vintage Trump — impulsive and cruel, without an ounce of class or human decency. His behavior no longer surprises us, but it should offend and disturb us, first, that he remains the face and voice of America in the world and, second, that his fans hoot and holler, seeing this as inconsequential or acceptable conduct. We wound up with this president because millions of Republicans could not prioritize character, decency and overall fitness to serve over their mundane and frankly petty partisan wish list (28 percent top marginal tax rate!). Self-appointed religious leaders fail to see that this soullessness — not the dreaded liberal elite who insist on saying “Happy Holidays” or refuse to countenance discrimination against gay customers — is a threat to the moral fiber of a democracy that requires a modicum of common sense and human decency to function.

Sure, Trump’s policies and rhetoric are incoherent and based on a tower of lies. Far worse, however, is his . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

4 June 2017 at 1:28 pm

Pay attention to Donald Trump’s actions, not his words

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Zachary Karabell writes in the Guardian:

There’s an emerging consensus that the presidency of Donald Trump has radically altered the warp and woof of American life. His supporters – which make up at least a third of all Americans – believe that he has accomplished great things in the past four months. His detractors, who are legion, see more harm than good in his record thus far.

What remains striking about Trump, however, is how much of the push back against him is provoked by his words, and how Americans are prone to ascribe weight to those words. This is not a Trump phenomenon. It is a very American one, stretching back many years, and starkly evident during Obama’s tenure just as much as it is during Trump’s early months in the White House.

In short, we pay too much attention to words and not enough to action. We have a cultural tendency to assume that words, political words, are reflections of reality, when very often they are not.

The decision to withdraw from the Paris accords is a case in point. That was immediately lauded by the Trump base and decried by most everyone else as a dramatic action. In terms of the symbolism of US global leadership, it is, but in terms of consequences for the environment it is not.

American soft-power may be damaged by Trump’s rhetoric, but progress toward a less carbon intensive future will likely not be dentedby that decision. The Paris accords are voluntary and non-binding, and much of the movement in the United States towards reducing emissions has come from and will continue to come from major states such as California, large multinational companies such as GE and small businesses that see the economic advantages of using renewables.

Trump’s words suggest major changes in American policies toward emissions, when even if the US does end up withdrawing from the accord in 2020, which is how long it will take to withdraw, the reality is that forces other than the federal government are driving us toward a lower carbon future.

Then take immigration. By most accounts, the first months of the Trump administration have created a widespread climate of fear among the millions of undocumented immigrants who live in the United States. That fear stems from the harsh rhetoric from multiple voices in the Trump administration, including from the president himself and the Attorney General Jeff Sessions, combined with numerous stories of deportation raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice).

The shift in tone is undeniable. What is also undeniable is that the first months of deportation policy under the Trump administration don’t differ greatly from the deportation policies in place during Barack Obama’s first term.

Between 2009 and 2013, there were more deportations than at any other
point in American history, close to 3 million people. Many have noted that, under Obama, authorities made a point of de-emphasizing non-violent undocumented immigrants and allowing them a degree of protection from deportation. But according to Ice records, about half of all deportations in those years were for non-violent immigrants.

It is true that immigration policy changed during Obama’s second term, with much greater emphasis on criminal immigrants. But it is equally true that the actions of his first term should have created widespread panic that deportation was a clear and present threat.

Yet while many Hispanics, who tended to be more directly affected by these harsh immigration policies, were critical of Obama’s immigration approach in his first term, they remained supportive of him and positive about his administration overall. Unlike Trump, Obama’s soaring and inclusive words created a culture of hope that served to offset the way his actions were perceived.

Deportations under Obama were rarely emphasized; Obama didn’t brag about them

or draw attention to them. He emphasized instead the country’s healing from the Great Recession and its move away from the military entanglements of the Bush years. He spoke in uplifting tones about America and an inclusive vision for the future.

Deportations weren’t the only disjuncture between words and deeds. Between 2006 and 2011, fencing and barriers were constructed along nearly 700 miles of the US-Mexican border; some of that began in 2006 under a law passed by Congress that then-Senator Obama voted for. It was not the big, beautiful fence touted by candidate Donald Trump, but it was wire, and fence, and concrete and cameras and it did cost billions. Here again, Obama did not trumpet its construction, or point to it as an example of America first. But it was built nonetheless.

Words can calm or agitate; they can uplift or depress; they can motivate or enervate. But in politics, they are not tantamount to action. The fact is that the immigration actions during Obama’s first term should have produced a climate of fear, while the actions during Trump first few months have arguably generated more fear than the actions themselves warrant. In both cases, words are driving our collective sense of reality out of proportion to the actions taken.

Under Obama, supporters listened to the words and discounted the actions, while opponents often discounted the words and focused on the actions. Under Trump, the only difference is that both opponents and supporters take his words as indicative of far more action than is actually the case.

This isn’t just an Obama-Trump phenomenon. For much of the 1950s, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

4 June 2017 at 1:12 pm

Professor receives death threats, cancels book tour after Fox airs her speech criticizing Trump

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Kelly Macias posts on Daily Kos:

Conservatives absolutely love free speech—but only when it applies to them. In the past few months, they have feigned outrage about several prominent right-wingers like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulos being disinvited to college campuses amid protests by those they’ve labeled as “snowflakes” who don’t want their bigoted ideas anywhere near them. They are quick to call liberals intolerant, but their rhetoric often blurs the line between free speech and hate speech and has incited security concerns. Yet they vehemently advocate for those on the right to say what they want, when they want to. And this right does not extend to those on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum.

Take for instance, Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor of African-American studies at Princeton University, who gave the commencement speech last month at Hampshire College. Fox News decided to air part of her speech, in which she described Trump as a “racist, sexist, megalomaniac.” This is hardly the worst thing that Trump has been called over the last two years. And its not at all untrue. But the hypocrites at Fox definitely didn’t defend Taylor’s right to free speech—in fact, just the opposite. So much so that she has been forced to cancel her book tour and subsequent speaking engagements at other universities.

After the report on her “Anti-POTUS tirade” aired, Taylor said she has received more than 50 hateful and threatening emails — some of which were issued with such specificity that she canceled portions of a tour to promote her new book, “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation.”

“Shortly after the Fox story and video were published, my work email was inundated with vile and violent statements. I have been repeatedly called ‘n****r,’ ‘b*tch,’ ‘c*nt,’ ‘dyke,’ ‘she-male,’ and ‘coon’ — a clear reminder that racial violence is closely aligned with gender and sexual violence,” Taylor said. “I have been threatened with lynching and having the bullet from a .44 Magnum put in my head.”

This is not coincidental. Donald Trump and Fox News have been behind some of the most hideous, vitriolic, and violent rhetoric against women and people of color in recent years. Their disgusting hate speech has incited all kinds of violence and, as a result, there has been a rise in hate crimes since the 2016 presidential election that the Southern Poverty Law Center has dubbed the “Trump Effect.” So it makes sense that Taylor would fear for her safety. And she understands the Fox story for what it appears to be: an effort to intimidate and silence the administration’s critics.

“I am not a newsworthy person,” Taylor said. “Fox did not run this story because it was ‘news,’ but to incite and unleash the mob-like mentality of its fringe audience, anticipating that they would respond with a deluge of hate-filled emails — or worse. The threat of violence, whether it is implied or acted on, is intended to intimidate and to silence.” . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

4 June 2017 at 12:21 pm

Interesting post on taking the SAT

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Kevin Kelly notes in an email newsletter:

For high-schoolers: The Khan Academy, the premier free online classroom, will tailor an SAT study course to your personal abilities based on your PSAT scores. They claim to be able to increase scores by 115 points. Sign up at Khan Academy, give PSAT permission to share your completed test, and Khan will create a free course designed for you personally. It will focus on your weak areas. BTW, they found that students who study together learn 2.5x as much as those who study alone. — KK

Written by LeisureGuy

4 June 2017 at 11:54 am

Posted in Education

A little lesson about privilege

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Written by LeisureGuy

4 June 2017 at 8:15 am

Posted in Daily life, Video

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